Presented on Wednesday, May 11, 2011 in the Barn at Quarry Farm. Mark Twain's love of the blackface minstrel show has seemed puzzling and even downright painful, because few aspects of American popular culture have been more offensive - and more enduring. In recent times, blackface has shown up again in Broadway, in dance competitions, on late-night television, and even in cupcake ads. Blackface, it seems, will mot go away.
Mark Twain recognized its painful and enduring power almost 150 years ago. He shared the advertising line that marks these lectures, "The Trouble Begins at Eight," with the San Francisco Minstrels, a white blackface troupe that Twain, for almost 40 years, singled out as exemplary. While the San Francisco Minstrels invoked racial stereotypes, they also challenged and subverted them. They specialized in a rollicking, ambiguous, improvisational, and often satirical humor that lampooned pretension, corruption, or the ridiculous current events and contemporary culture. Exploring Twain's love of their performances and his use of the minstrel mask can help us understand why blackface is here to stay, and why it remains anything but inoffensive.
Sharon McCoy, an academic free agent, is president of the American Humor Studies Association and executive coordinator of the Mark Twain Circle, and teaches writing and American literature at the University of Georgia. She is researching and writing a book on Mark Twain and post-bellum blackface minstrelsy, Anything But Inoffensive.